Cranford Knutsford
Looking through the Marble Arch in Knutsford aka Cranford.

Beginning this month PBS is playing the BBC version of Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford on Masterpiece Theater. Based on seeing the just the first episode so far, I think this adaptation captures the tone of the short stories perfectly: sweet and funny and a bit poignant. If you missed the first episode, you can catch up by watching it online.

Of course, I’m prejudiced in favor of Cranford; the village is a thinly-veiled Knutsford where Elizabeth Gaskell was raised. Knutsford is also where AJM was raised. (Technically he is from the small village three miles down the road which has little more than a post office and a convenience store.) I like to ramble through Knutsford and marvel at how Gaskell captured it and those wonderful “old ladies”.

Cranford is in possession of the Amazons, all the holders of houses, above a certain rent, are women.

CranfordSo begins the little book (really a series of short stories) that is at once nostalgic, for certain kind of genteel English parish life, and radical. I don’t mean that there’s an overt feminist message; I’m remembering only that Virginia Woolf considered a book entirely about women’s friendships radical 70 years after Cranford was published. But I digress. The best reason to read Cranford is because it’s funny. You do think a cow dressed in gray flannel waistcoat and drawers funny, don’t you?

Behind the humor, Mrs. Gaskell’s social conscience is still in evidence. The humorous stories do not ignore problems with poverty and class differences or the homogenization of place brought about by new technologies. Cranford does not want to be modernized and lose what distinguishes it from other places. These issues seem much more present, more a part of the narrative, than they are in Jane Austen’s books. Not that Cranford ever sounds preachy.

Minshull St, Knutsford
Minshull St connects King St and Princess St.

Even today, Knutsford is mainly a two street town and very picturesque. You can follow this map of Knutsford that explains the links between the real and fictional towns and their inhabitants.

Last year when I was in Knutsford, I experienced rather the same emotion that the Cranford characters felt when they were threatened with the building of the railroad. A Starbucks had been installed. A Starbucks in a town of antique shops, tearooms, and wine bars. It seemed so, as Miss Deborah would say, vulgar.

photo: Knutsford Cross Keys Hotel
Cross Keys Hotel on King’s Street, Knutsford. The original Cross Keys Inn was demolished on 1909.

Selected Quotes

This is only a small list of my favorites from the first couple of stories. There is more, more, more. I’ll add to this list in time.

[The Cranford ladies’] dress is very independent of fashion; as they observe, “What does it signify how we dress here at Cranford where everybody knows us?” And if they go from home, their reason is equally cogent: “What does it signify how we dress here, where nobody knows us?” — p 2

“Elegant economy!” How naturally one falls back into the phraseology of Cranford! There, economy was always “elegant,” and money-spending always “vulgar and ostentatious,” a sort of sour-grapeism, which made us very peaceful and satisfied. I shall never forget the dismay felt when a certain Captain Brown came to live at Cranford, and openly spoke about his being poor–not in a whisper to an intimate friend, the doors and windows being previously closed; but in the public street! in a loud military voice! alleging his poverty as a reason for not taking a particular house. — p 4

[Captain Brown, contradicting his hostess, says that he finds Dickens superior to Dr. Johnson, and reads a scene to the company.] Some of us laughted heartily. I did not dare, because I was staying in the house. — p 9

[Mr. Holbrook] took me all around the place and showed me his six-and-twenty cows, named after different letters of the alphabet. — p 32

When we came back, nothing would serve him but he must read us the poems he had been speaking of; and Miss Pole encouraged him in his proposal, I thought, because she wished me to hear his beautiful reading, of which she had boasted; but afterwards said it was becase she had got to a difficult part of her crochet, and wanted to count her stitches without having to talk. — p 35

“There were many old ladies living here then; we are principally ladies now, I know; but we are not so old as the ladies used to be when I was a girl.” — p 50

3 Responses to “Cranford”

  1. Rantor Responds:

    If you’ve ever been afraid you’d run out of books to read and you haven’t tried the rest of Mrs. Gaskell, do! Cranford is over too soon; the others, for the most part, are significantly fatter.

  2. mss Responds:

    I walked to Knutsford yesterday and bought Mrs. Gaskell’s biography of her dear friend Charlotte Bronte. Jane Eyre was my favorite book as a teenager and I’m looking forward to reading about Charlotte Bronte from someone who knew her as a friend.

  3. mga Responds:

    Cranford is one of my favorite books, although I think that at least as much of it is really sad as funny.

The surface and beneath the surface